Steelers’ collapse unprecedented – and baffling

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the worst collapse in NFL history

by a reigning Super Bowl champion is as maddening as it is

saddening.

Barely a month ago, the Steelers were 6-2 after winning five in

a row – beating the Chargers, Vikings and Broncos – and were well

positioned not only to win the AFC North, but to take another run

at the Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger was enjoying a career year

statistically, the defense was as nasty as ever and the Steelers

had the look and attitude of a champion.

Then, somehow, it all got away from them. Blame it on Troy

Polamalu and Aaron Smith getting hurt. Blame it on a delayed Super

Bowl hangover, blame it on overconfidence, blame it on a lack of

preparation, blame it on an inability to close out close games.

Right now, there’s a whole lot of blame to go around.

For the Steelers (6-7), finding the words to explain a five-game

losing streak that has wrecked their hopes of repeating as Super

Bowl champions is proving as difficult as covering a kick

return.

To Hines Ward, the collapse is “embarrassing.” To

Roethlisberger, it’s “disappointing.” Ryan Clark calls it

“despicable, sad.” Most of the Steelers call it baffling, because

none of them saw it coming.

“We’re better than that,” Ward said following the Steelers’

13-6 loss in Cleveland on Thursday night. “We should play better

than that. I can’t pinpoint why we are losing. We all have a hand

in it.”

Only one other Super Bowl champion lost five in a row the

following season, and the 1987 Giants deserve an asterisk because

they used replacement players during part of that

strike-interrupted season.

What most troubles the Steelers is who is beating them.

A year ago, the Steelers survived one of the toughest schedules

in NFL history to win their sixth Super Bowl, facing the Eagles,

Ravens (twice), Chargers, Giants, Cowboys, Colts, Patriots and

Titans during the season.

This season, their losses to the Browns (1-11 at the time), the

Chiefs (2-7 at the time) and Raiders (3-8 at the time) rank as

three of the biggest upsets in the NFL all year.

The Browns were last in the NFL in total defense and were

playing without five injured starters – in essence, they were using

their replacement team – yet they held the Steelers without a

touchdown and sacked Roethlisberger eight times.

Back when the Steelers were 6-2, the games against the Chiefs,

Raiders and Browns looked to be a springboard to a high seeding in

the AFC playoffs. Instead, they’ve caused their season to

unravel.

Asked if the Steelers still are a good football team, coach Mike

Tomlin said, “Based on recent trends, in terms of our record and

how we’ve played recently, you cannot say that.”

As a result, the Steelers will be playing out the string in

December for the first time since 2003. Even in 2006, when the

reigning Super Bowl champion Steelers started 2-6, they won six of

their final eight to make a late run at the playoffs.

These Steelers could win out by beating the Packers, Ravens and

Dolphins to finish 9-7, yet that probably wouldn’t be enough to

make the playoffs, given their 1-4 division and 4-6 conference

records, which factor into tiebreakers.

“People are going to question what has happened to this team,

and I really can’t say,” Ward said. “I don’t know. You are going

to find out a lot about this team in the last three games. We will

figure out who is going to quit and who is going to go out and

continue to fight.”

The Steelers experienced several late-season collapses like this

during the midpoint of former coach Bill Cowher’s career. After

reaching the AFC championship game three times in four seasons,

they went 7-9 in 1998 after starting 7-4 and 6-10 in 1999 after

being 5-3. However, they rebounded to go 13-3 in 2001 and 10-5-1 in

2002.

Now, Cowher’s successor is involved in his first crisis in his

three seasons as coach, one that seems likely to result in changes

in personnel, his coaching staff and, perhaps, philosophy. Tomlin

promised changes before the Browns game yet made very few; perhaps

he’s waiting for the offseason – and it will be here soon enough –

to make them.

Figuring why they give up so many long kick returns would be a

good start. The Steelers have allowed four kickoff return

touchdowns, compared to 10 for the other 31 NFL teams combined.

First, though, there are three games to play – three games that,

only a few weeks ago, seemed likely to determine whether this would

be a good Steelers season or a great one. Instead, they’re three

games the Steelers can’t wait to finish, if only because the season

can’t end until they’re played.

“We, as a group, have to come together and continue to go out

and fight these last three games,” Ward said.